Why Chicago Won't Stop the Killings: In Police Work, Nothing Succeeds Like Failure

Chicago mother Shirley Chambers has lost four of her five children to gun violence, the last on January 26, the bloodiest January in a decade.

But if Ms. Chambers lived in New York City, her children almost certainly would be alive.

Despite having more than three times Chicago's population, last year New York City had only 418 homicides, the fewest since reliable record keeping began a half century ago and 88 fewer than Chicago.

Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy echoes Mayor Rahm Emanuel in calling for more gun control, even though the city already has some of the toughest gun laws in the nation. Yet McCarthy is not reforming his police to copy NYPD for a very good reason: there is no relationship between a police chief's cutting crime and keeping his or her job.

We reached this conclusion, reluctantly, after studying the link between homicide rates and police chief tenure in the 15 largest U.S. cities for 1990-2008. (We only looked at homicide since cops can fudge most of the other crime statistics.) No matter how we lagged the variables and tortured the data, there were simply no relationships between a police chief's fighting crime well or poorly and keeping their post.

Our statistical non-findings confirmed street knowledge among police professionals. As a researcher at a police chief's association told us, "the reason why no one has looked at that [homicide rates] is that there is absolutely no correlation with the homicide rates and police commissioner tenure. Everybody knows that!" Police chiefs get fired for scandals or for not getting along with mayors, not for high crime rates.

In fact, fighting crime could be hazardous to one's career. New York's homicide rate plunged nearly 80 percent in the 1990s, at the very time when social scientists predicted more crime. Yet the prime architect of the New York miracle, then NYPD Commissioner William Bratton left for the crime of being too popular. Once Giuliani saw Bratton as a political threat, the commissioner's days were numbered. Unless Rahm Emanuel is a far less ruthless politician than Rudy Giuliani -- and we see no evidence of that -- then Superintendent McCarthy would be wise to steer clear of Bratton's successful crime fighting methods.

So why does New York have so few homicides compared to Chicago and other cities? One reason may be that while NYPD recruits nationally to snare the best and the brightest, Chicago relies more on hometown talent. Perhaps even more important is how NYPD has infused measurement into police management. In a system where advancement is based on longtime personal or political connections rather than crime fighting, you cannot expect police to excel at fighting crime.

Much has been made of NYPD's use of COMPSTAT statistical programs reporting crime in real time, but no one has remarked on what made COMPSTAT work in New York and underperform elsewhere. From the 1990s and continuing today, NYPD leaders hold regular COMPSTAT meetings dissecting where crimes occur and criticizing poor police performance. They also highlight precincts whose leaders used innovative techniques to drive down crime and push their peers to copy what works. Over time, this turned NYPD into a learning organization.

But why should police learn? Of course one would like to think that cops want to cut crime, but unfortunately, this is not a sufficient motive to convince experienced officials to change practices which have worked for them, if not for the public.

The difference is that NYPD commissioners have unusual power over personnel. Above the rank of captain, every promotion is controlled by the police commissioner. In his first year, Commissioner Bratton replaced two-thirds of NYPD's precinct commanders with officers who shared his vision. The NYPD commissioner also has the power to reduce a precinct commander's rank, a very substantial loss in income, pension and prestige.

It's unclear whether the Chicago Police Superintendent McCarthy lacks that power over personnel. Given how city politicians including the mayor would react, he probably won't ask for it.

So long as politics trumps performance, it makes more sense for Superintendent McCarthy and Mayor Emanuel to play the blame game than fight crime. In police politics, if you want to keep your job, nothing fails like success.

This actually offers President Obama and Vice President Biden an opportunity. The Obama administration's Race to the Top grants encouraged accountability in K-12 education. It's time for the administration to embrace accountability in policing, offering financial carrots to cities willing to adopt the practices pioneered by NYPD.

Let's stop grandstanding and stop the killing. We owe it to Shirley Chambers.

Dr. Robert Maranto is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership at Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, and author or editor of 11 books including (with Mike McShane) President Obama and Education Reform: The Personal and the Political.

Dr. Patrick J. Wolf is Professor and 21st Century Endowed Chair in School Choice in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. He has authored, co-authored, or co-edited three books and over 90 journal articles, book chapters, and policy reports on public management, campaign finance, civic values, school choice, and special education.

This commentary summarizes their findings in "Cops, Teachers, and the Art of the Impossible: Explaining the lack of diffusions of 'impossible jobs' innovations," published in Public Administration Review here.